Facebook’s “On This Day” as a Spiritual Practice

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I don’t know exactly when Facebook rolled out its On This Day feature, but it’s become more and more a part of my daily social media routine. It’s been (mostly) a gift to read what was important to me one, two, three or more years ago.

Reactions to On This Day are mixed. Many friends and colleagues have expressed concern that the feature can cause unnecessary pain, especially if people aren’t prepared to be confronted by updates about a marriage that’s now over, or about the life of a beloved person who has died. Also, Facebook updates are non-linear, haphazard even. Dismay over terrorist attacks mingle with reports on our pets. Grief visits us, but it can be nestled between Buzzfeed videos and a recipe for brussels sprouts gratin. Which is part of the beauty of the thing–profound moments mingled with the sacred ordinary. But it can also create emotional whiplash.

For people who simply don’t want to go there, Facebook makes it easy to ignore On This Day. The feature can remind you every day to take a peek at what’s there, but you can turn the notifications off. You can also block updates involving certain people and mute certain dates… though I suspect that’s not foolproof at muting the sad stuff. I miss my dad, not just on his birthday or the day he died, but random days throughout the year.

I suspect many people use social media as a de facto journal to chronicle daily life. In that respect, it’s good to have a way to go back and read… although I wish there were a way to skip easily to any date in your timeline, not just the current one. I also wish you could allow select people to view your On This Day–my husband posts rarely to Facebook but has wished he could easily access mine, especially for the posts about our family.

I believe On This Day is not just a reminder of past events. It can also be a spiritual practice, a way of “listening to your life.” One of the most important practices for our family and for me is the examen, in which we talk about points of gratitude in our day. On This Day is a way of living the examen on a larger scale. Patterns emerge. Situations ripen over a series of days and months, and it can be illuminating to see a snapshot in time when we know the end of the story.

It seems to me there’s a balance to be found between detachment and engagement. On This Day works best for me as a reflective practice when I’ve gotten into the right mental space. I might take a deep breath and spiritually prepare myself for what I’ll see there, and it’s mostly a delightful surprise. But if there are sad things waiting for me there, I want to be detached enough so I don’t replay the heartache–I can acknowledge it and feel whatever new thing I need to feel about it.

But we don’t want to be too detached either, examining our experiences as if we were a historian researching the past. Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt talks about contemplation as a “long, loving look at the real.” Loving means not holding our experiences at arms’ length.

There’s also something to be said for the what we might call holy amnesia. I’m struck by how many annoyances and indignities I was very exercised about at the time, that I not only don’t care about any more, but don’t even remember. That’s such important perspective–and it also impacts what I write today. Will the future me want to read this? Will the future me even care? Those can be helpful questions to keep things in proper proportion.

Do you read On This Day? How do you engage with it?

5 thoughts on “Facebook’s “On This Day” as a Spiritual Practice

  1. Gail Gillespie

    How timely, this blogpost. Yesterday, at choir, a friend said that she never wanted to go on FB again, as the two most recent “On This Day” posts were both extremely painful for her, I will share with her, in a private message, or maybe by email, since I’m not sure she’s opening FB, today…thanks, MA

  2. Ann Philbrick

    You are much more productive with your FB use than I am for sure. And I like some of the suggestions for how this On This Day feature might be used. But I must admit to being really jaded on FB when I think about why FB has created this feature. What FB itself does is driven by profit more than anything else so getting us to stay on longer is the point of everything they do. And the On This Day for many of us is what I call Facebook crack – designed to get us emotionally hooked to being on line.

    1. paracletepress

      Well I’ve said many times that if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. None of us should lose sight of that fact.

  3. Bob Braxton

    No (not yet). Alice Miller in the Gifted Child and about ten other books concludes that for those afflicted by young parents with “toxic child” rearing – it is the total wiping out of the painful memories which enables the infant / child even to survive! Interesting that I have memories back close to 1947 before I was even three years of age.
    Let’s go to NT Greek:
    Original Word: ἀνάκρισις, εως, ἡ
    Part of Speech: Noun, Feminine
    Transliteration: anakrisis
    Phonetic Spelling: (an-ak’-ree-sis)
    Short Definition: judicial examination, preliminary inquiry
    Definition: judicial examination, preliminary inquiry.
    Original Word: βάσανος, ου, ἡ
    Part of Speech: Noun, Feminine
    Transliteration: basanos
    Phonetic Spelling: (bas’-an-os)
    Short Definition: torture, torment
    Definition: torture, torment, examination by torture.


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